It wasn’t that I minded bringing other kids home from school. It was who might be in the kitchen, really. It might be Mom, or somebody who looked like Mom but talked like some sort of fruitcake, or it might be Hortense the Seamstress, or Betty Crackers, or even the Pirate Queen. My friends were pretty nice about it, but it drove me nuts. You just never knew. It was like living in a Fun House, but sometimes it was embarrassing.
Hortense the Seamstress was always throwing old clothes around, like shawls and stuff, and flouncing around the house in beat-up old hats with a long cigarette holder. She had a deep, smoky voice, and talked with a French accent. She was crazy about clothes and was always turning things into other things: cutting off sleeves and taking in waists, and making things over into what she called her “creations.” Sometimes we’d take the bus downtown and go to the big stores together and try stuff on, but Hortense would always slap her hand to her forehead and complain that “Zese zings are ZO expensive!”
Betty Crackers liked to try new things in the kitchen, usually with disastrous results. She’d bustle around in an old-lady apron, the kind with pockets, with this idiot grin plastered over her face, playing to an imaginary camera about her latest culinary triumph, usually while a pot boiled over behind her, or the cat stole the lamb chops. Most of the time she’d left by the time Dad got home, but sometimes she got so carried away the kitchen looked like somebody’s science experiment, and we’d have sandwiches for dinner, because you didn’t dare cook in there. One day the pressure cooker exploded while she was on the phone, and covered the whole place with tomato sauce. Things like this did not happen in my friends’ homes.
There was more. The Jungle Monster lived in the garden, and had long tentacles that were always getting up my pants leg and under my arms. It would squirt me with the hose, or jump at me out of the shrubbery when I was trying to dig a hole for a zinnia, making weird tropical bird noises, or maybe it was monkeys. You know the one? Oo-oo-oo-AH-AH-AH! Then we’d collapse, giggling, on the grass, and go in all itchy and muddy and covered with grass stains.
Then there was the Pirate Queen. When I was little, I loved the Pirate Queen, who started hanging around to read me “Peter Pan” when I was going to sleep. She wore a dimestore mustache and did all the different pirate voices. Then she started branching out. She’d rent a little canoe at the park where we used to go, and we’d paddle around the little pond while she made up pirate stories and called me “me hearty.” “Put yer back into it, me hearty!” she’d holler at the top of her voice. People were starting to stare sometimes, but we didn’t care. We dug for gold in the sandpile and took turns tying each other up with shoestrings. One day, in the street, she found an old hat with a big, dirty feather in it. She cleaned it up a little and started wearing it every time we went to the park. And she’d carry a plastic cutlass she’d bought at the zoo. Sometimes she wore her mustache, or tied a bright rag around her head. Or we’d all drive down to the beach in the dark before morning and have breakfast cooked over a hole in the sand. Then we’d dig for pirate treasure while my dad took a nap in the shade.
Patient Griselda lived at our house, too, and was known by her initials, PG. She was the maid. Did the housework and laundry, but the rest of the gang kicked her out as soon as she was done. She kept her head down and didn’t say much. Just worked all the time. Her hands were always wet and she smelled like Bab-O. Really boring.
One day, though, she got a little more interesting. I had just started first grade. I came home from school one day and found PG waltzing around the dining room table by herself, crooning “PG is PG is PG is PG” to some record she was playing I’d never heard before. Didn’t make any sense to me. When my Dad came home they shut the door and talked for a while and I heard some laughing. Then they came out and told me Mom was going to have a baby. Just like that.
Things changed a little after that, but not much. Dad was gone a lot. The Pirate Queen went off somewhere for a long time, but Hortense was all over the place. Boxes came to the house, with dresses and cloth in them, and she was always sewing on something with a mouth full of pins. She never wore her hat any more, the one with what she called her “fezzers.” And I never saw the long cigarette holder again. These creations were more boring than the old ones, though. Curtains, quilts, baby stuff, big, sacky dresses. Good thing, too. She got as big as an elephant. Some times she’d flounce around the house like a Spanish Dancer, with a great big silk shawl around her, fringe a foot long flying in all directions. In anybody else’s house, that shawl would have been hanging quietly on the piano, under the silver-framed family photos. Once I found her doing the Charleston in that getup, and I was glad my friend Christine hadn’t come over that day.
My little sister Bibby was born one night while I was at my grandmother’s because I had the mumps. When I came home, her crib was in my room, along with some baby stuff. My bed and my toys and books had been moved over to the wall by the window. The Spanish Dancer shuffled around the house for a while, slept a lot, and fed the baby while Grandma cooked and slept on the couch. Well, to tell the truth nobody slept very much, because the baby cried all the time. Mom had big bags under her eyes and called herself the Zombie. I don’t even know where Dad was. I spent a lot of time over at Christine’s. They had a big TV, and we’d watch cartoons and the Mickey Mouse Club after school.
Little by little, though, things returned to whatever passed for normal at our house. One day after Bibby could get through a night on her own, I came home from school with some of my friends and found Betty Crackers in the kitchen, whooping and hollering with her friend Mrs. Haraldsen about Norwegian meatballs. One of them was peeling potatoes and the other was banging on a paper bag with a hammer. The radio was playing dance music, and Bibby was asleep in some kind of backpack on Mom’s back. We just took the Rice Krispies squares they’d left out for us and got out fast.
When Bibby got a little older, the three of us would do things together. She had real pretty baby hair, and people used to come up and ask if they could touch it. Mom always let me make the decision, and I sized them up very carefully before I said yes. And it was my job to give her a bath and pick out her nightgown while Betty Crackers was being crazy in the kitchen with dinner. But I had school projects, and tons of homework to do, and I stayed busy with my friends. We were old enough to go to the movies by ourselves, and to the drugstore afterward.
Sometimes I’d get the feeling that the old fun house was still open while I was at school. I’d come home and find the furniture all rearranged and upside down, or branches and flower petals all over the garden like somebody’d had a flower fight, or sheets thumbtacked to the ceiling like part of a tent.
One day when I was giving Bibby her bath I found glitter in her ears and hair. I asked her about it, and she just looked mysterious, like she had some kind of dumb secret.
After Bibby went to school full time, the fun house shut its doors, I guess. I was in middle school by then, and had my hands full. I was in Future Nurses, on the volleyball squad and in the drama club, and ran long distance practice twice a week. I heard locker doors banging in my sleep, and had nightmares about forgetting assignments. I quit the piano lessons but stuck with the modern dance.
Mom got a job in a doctor’s office, and showed up to drive me to all my after-school stuff every afternoon. Bibby sat in the back seat, reading comic books. I was afraid at first I’d find her in a chauffeur’s hat and gloves, or one of those corny signs on the car that said “Mom’s Taxi” or something like that, but she just acted ordinary. She kept fat paperback novels in the glove compartment to read while she waited in the carpool line. The Spanish Dancer, Patient Griselda, Hortense the seamstress, even the Pirate Queen were no longer with us. Even Betty Crackers was gone. I thought about them sometimes, like characters in a movie, and wondered what had happened to them. I guess PG would have gone on to another job as a drudge, but what kind of future is there for the others? Who would put up with them?
Time marched on for the rest of us, too. Bibby went away to school last year. I finished school, got a job, and got married about four years ago. My husband’s a good man, patient and quiet like my Dad. We live in a garden apartment not too far from our old place, and have a little boy who’s almost three. I work part-time at a private school as a teacher’s aide, so our son gets free tuition in the pre-school section. Life’s pretty much under control. Michael is a mild-mannered little guy and doesn’t talk much. It’s been gnawing at me lately that his life is different from mine at his age. He’s got more stuff, and there’s color TV, but his mental horizons are much more limited. When I finally figured out what was missing, I called in the big guns and got straight down to cases.
“Mom,” I whined, “Michael has never met Betty Crackers, or Hortense the Seamstress, or Patient Griselda, or the Spanish Dancer. There is no Jungle Monster in our garden apartment. He’s never even heard of the Pirate Queen. His life is a desert! You’ve got to do something.” There was a long silence. Then a deep, rumbling chuckle that sounded like Hortense had been at the cognac. “You know, I always wondered about that. Those characters were my own personal defense against never having enough money. You and Bibby enjoyed them when you were little, but later they seemed to embarrass you, so I bumped ’em off. Well. if Michael needs them, the Pirate Queen and her entourage shall RIDE AGAIN!”
It’s only been a few weeks, now. Patient Griselda now spends Saturday mornings at our house, doing dreary chores like paying the bills and spot cleaning the carpet. Michael rides off with my mother promptly at 8:30 and returns in the afternoon, exhausted, often filthy, and filled with new fire. I stripped him down for his bath last night and found a tattoo on his fanny. He insisted on wearing his hat in the bath, and did a passable imitation of a Tarzan yell when I asked him about his day.
The Pirate Queen, I am pleased to report, is back on deck.